Saturday 21 September 2019

Morocco: Mountain music and a city of spies in Tangier

Tangier, Morocco

Tangier, where the Mediterranean and Atlantic, and Africa and Europe, meet, has a unique international history full of spies, smugglers and artists, full of spies, smugglers and artists.
Tangier, where the Mediterranean and Atlantic, and Africa and Europe, meet, has a unique international history full of spies, smugglers and artists, full of spies, smugglers and artists.
The kasbah in Asilah, Morocco
El Minzah hotel near the Medina in Tangier
Casa Garcia
La Villa Josephine Tengier

Andrew Kealy

The message came through from the village: "They've slaughtered the goat."

This good news, sent from Jajouka in Morocco's Rif Mountains to our group in Tangier, meant the following day's lunch was shaping up well. We were to visit the Master Musicians of Jajouka, a group of Berber players that can trace its existence back over 1,300 years and which has caught the ear of western writers and artists; William Burroughs reportedly referred to the group, with some exaggeration as to the timeframe, as a "4,000-year-old rock band".

Ahead of our mountain trip we are based in the city of Tangier, which sits on Morocco's northern coast looking across at Gibraltar and on to the straits where the Atlantic and the Mediterranean meet (Tarifa, Spain is 40km away, or about an hour by ferry). From the viewing point at Cap Spartel to the west of the city, it is possible to discern a line in the water where the two seas meet.

It is this meeting point of Mediterranean and Atlantic and of Africa and Europe that has given Tangier its unique international flavour. Over its long history, the city has been under the influence of Portuguese, English, Arabs, French and Spanish, and this legacy can be heard in the languages spoken and seen in the architecture around the city (surrounding the old city, in the 'ville nouvelle', there are French, Spanish, British and American quarters; the area with the golf course and race track is known as California). French is the lingua franca, but English and Spanish are widely understood.

For westerners, perhaps the more interesting time in Tangier's history is its status as an 'international zone' between 1923 and 1956, when it wasn't part of Morocco (during this time Moroccans needed a passport to enter Tangier). France, Britain and Spain agreed to run the city between them, with none of them enforcing a particularly strict administration, and this peculiar status made the port town attractive to, among others, smugglers, spies and artists. American and European writers and artists were attracted in part by the combination of refinement and delinquency. Among the notables drawn to the city were Henri Matisse, William Burroughs, Timothy Leary and Yves Saint Laurent.

In a recent interview, Bill Murray, who made a film in Morocco, described it to a US audience as "entry-level Africa and an entry-level Muslim country". And while Tangier may no longer be a playground for western thrill-seekers, it certainly feels safe and comfortable to walk around. A simple measure of the moderation to which Murray refers is that while most women wear head scarves, many also wear western clothes and don't cover their hair; only a very few cover their faces. And yes, you can get a drink.

On the morning we strolled towards the souk, Berber women in traditional dress had descended from the Rif mountains on their weekly trip to sell their produce (fruit, vegetables and goats' cheese). Inside the market, butchers were busy carrying carcasses over their shoulders as stalls were set up with everything from colourful displays of olives to marijuana pipes.

La Villa Josephine Tengier
La Villa Josephine Tengier

At the heart of Tangier is the old walled city, or Medina, which, in a series of narrow stone alleyways, leads down to the port. At the centre of life in the Medina is the square known as Petit Socco, which was once famous as a centre for drug deals and prostitution. These days, it is cleaned up and filled with tourists who find it a pleasant place to stop for a cup of tea and do some people-watching. Drinking the local tea (highly sweetened and served with fresh mint leaves) seems to be key to life in Tangier and there are no shortage of cafes where residents and tourists while away the hours. Among the better places to do this is the terrace of the Hotel Continental, which has a magnificent view of the city. The hotel retains a sort of faded grandeur - boasting a late 19th-century recommendation from the then Duke of Edinburgh. Barring the addition of a flatscreen TV and an updated bathroom, the duke would find his room little changed.

For those following in the footsteps of the beat writers, Cafe Hafa is a must. Its series of descending terraces set into the cliff all provide panoramic views of the bay. It is an ideal place to chat, smoke and drink yet more tea. Although it doesn't boast a view of the bay, the Cafe de Paris in the centre of town remains popular. It retains the decor of its 1950s heyday, when it was known as a place spies would meet to exchange secrets. One of our group had a less-thrilling exchange here when she was enjoying an omelette at her table on the boulevard; a vagrant walked up, grabbed the food from her plate, shoved it in his gob and legged it.

In contrast to these well-worn hostelries is the modern opulence of Le Mirage, a hotel to the west of the city where the grandeur is not at all faded. If modern Tangier retains an espionage link, it is that Daniel Craig stayed here during the making of the new Bond film Spectre. And it is a fine home for Bond, with its series of luxury suites cut into the cliffs overlooking the Atlantic. From the terrace where we lunched, there is a tremendous view of the beach stretching away to the south. Le Mirage also recently hosted French President Francois Hollande, who met Morocco's King Mohammed VI in part to discuss a project to join Tangier and Marrakech with a high-speed TGV train.

For those wishing to escape the city, the fishing town of Asilah is an hour's drive south of Tangier along the Atlantic coast. This fishing town boasts an impressive citadel built by the Portuguese in the 15th century. And a local ordinance dictates buildings in the old town can only be painted blue and white. On top of this, artists attending an annual festival in July paint murals on walls, replacing the previous year's art, making for a quirky experience where one turns a corner on a medieval stone street, to be greeted by a modern work of art on a white-washed wall. The view of the coast and of the waves crashing against the rocks from the kasbah's walls is extraordinary.

Of all the artists to pass through Tangier, the westerner most-associated with the city is American cult author Paul Bowles, who in 1947 settled here. Bowles was also a composer of note and took a keen interest in the traditional music of Morocco, travelling to small villages to make recordings. His travels brought him to Jajouka, a village of mostly goat herds two-hours' drive from Tangier into the Rif mountains, where he met Mohammed Attar, leader of the Master Musicians. Sixty years later, our group traces that journey and we are greeted by Bachir Attar, Mohammed's son and the current Master Musician (although there was a schism at some point and so there is also a group with the variant spelling Master Musicians of Joujouka).

At the centre of the village is the tomb of Sidi Ahmed Sheikh, a saint who brought Islam to the village approximately 1,300 years ago. Bachir tells us the music was used as a cure for mental illness. Pilgrims would bring afflicted family members to the tomb where they would be chained to the adjacent fig tree. The musicians would play for them until they were cured, a process that could last months. The practice has died out, although the saint's tomb remains a site of pilgrimage for the devout.

The kasbah in Asilah, Morocco
The kasbah in Asilah, Morocco

In 1968, Rolling Stone Brian Jones, via painter Brion Gysin, found his way to Jajouka, where he recorded an album of Sufi trance music. And in 1989, the Rolling Stones were here to record the musicians for backing music on a track on the Steel Wheels album. Now, the Master Musicians of Jajouka hold a festival in the village each August as well as playing gigs throughout the year.

During our visit, our group is treated to a performance in a compound built by Gysin for the musicians. Bachir leads five other players; four play the ghaita, a reed flute made from the wood of the apricot tree, with two playing drums. They perform two pieces of about seven minutes each, screeching pipes playing repetitive phrases over relentless drums. Sitting under the warm October sun, the music seems to fit the arid hills, although one couldn't help feeling that the sensation would have been heightened by some of the kif for which this area is famous - (it's the local word for marijuana, pronounced keef, as in Mick 'n' Keef, and hence the phrase kif in the Rif). Alas, it's not that sort of trip. The goat, at least, is delicious.

Getting there

For information about Morocco and Tangier, see

See also The Royal Tulip City Centre ( or El Minzah Hotel ( for accommodation and for the Jajouka see

When to go: year round

Take three

Play it again

El Minzah hotel near the Medina in Tangier

The five-star El Minzah hotel near the Medina in Tangier has an eccentric charm, mixing Arab and western culture. Former British prime minister Tony Blair was a guest during our time in Tangier, and French intellectual Bernard Henri-Levy is a regular. It has both a western and a Moroccan restaurant, including live music and dance. And, according to imdb at least, Rick's Cafe Americain in Casablanca was modelled on the decor in the El Minzah.

European food

Casa Garcia

Casa Garcia (above) in Asilah is a high-end Spanish seafood restaurant. Owned by a Spanish family for two generations, it benefits from direct access to the catches of local fishermen. Although the purists will say it has lost some of its charm since it moved from its previous, more ramshackle premises on the ocean to a smarter venue, the food is nonetheless excellent. It remains a focal point for Moroccans visiting the town.

Cocktail hour

La Villa Josephine Tengier

One can't help but feel part of a civilised order when enjoying an afternoon gin and tonic in La Villa Josephine. Built around 1900, the hotel is very French in its styling (one wall decoration includes medals for Charles de Gaulle), giving it an air of old-world luxury. Looking out over the courtyard and swimming pool, with 1960s pop music playing gently in the background, is an entirely pleasant way to spend an afternoon.

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